Review by Aaron_Haynes

"It's worth the frustration. Just don't throw your controller."

At it's best, Jak II is an effective, almost operatic rebellion story that establishes you as an unlikely rogue soldier in a chaotic ground war against a brutal totalitarian government. You aren't the stereotypical chosen hero of legend from the first installment, but instead an escaped prisoner of the Baron, tortured for two years and more interested in revenge than freeing the city. Your friendships have become tentative and prickly, the jobs you do aren't exactly hero material, and there's a sense of wounded pride to your new mercenary outlook on life that you feel is justified under the circumstances. You care what is happening, and you manage to immerse yourself in the world around you.

Jak II is rarely at its best, and never for very long.

As pre-release info about Jak and Daxter's second outing became available, there was a lot of criticism levelled at it for essentially ripping off Grand Theft Auto and shifting from a stereotypical light fantasy tone to a stereotypical dark dystopian tone. Certainly the Jak from The Precursor Legacy didn't seem a likely candidate for a bad-ass antihero. Unfortunately, the game hit shelves and in a big way those fears were justified. Jak does a second-rate Solid Snake impression through most of the game, and his early lines, clearly intended to illustrate how much he's changed, are among the most awkwardly overdone. "You look like a reasonably smart man," he snarls at Kor, who we recognize as the archetypal old sage who will provide much of the game's exposition. "I want information! Where the hell am I?" This is the first example in a long line of annoying moments where the writers' intention is so blatantly obvious it destroys suspension of disbelief. Jak's turn to growling antihero is hard to swallow, so the writers subvert our expectations by having him harshly snap at the helpful sage character.

The story so far: Jak and Daxter, Jak's would-be girlfriend Keira and her father Samos the sage repair a rift rider and take it through to another dimension. A monstrous holographic visage appears and roars something about it finally being time and whatnot, and the rider breaks apart, splitting everyone up. Jak is captured by the Baron's guards and has dark eco, that all-purpose evil goo for various transformations, pumped into him for two years in an attempt to create a superhuman warrior. Daxter rescues him, it turns out he CAN transform into a superhuman warrior, he meets a sage named Kor who travels with a familiar-looking young boy, and he gradually begins to do jobs for both the resistance and various criminal elements throughout Haven City. As the game progresses, the various factions become more active, major plot elements begin to heat up, and a few minor surprises are revealed.

Haven City is the most convoluted game environment I've ever seen.When advanced through cutscenes, the game's story manages to progress reasonably effectively. With the exception of some awkward lines, hamhanded gravelly voices, and those aforementioned moments when writer's intent overshadows effectiveness, there are some engaging plot threads and themes going on. Where the game suffers most in its storytelling is interstitial moments and its attempt to create a totalitarian setting. In true Grand Theft Auto style, Jak II drops you into a hub called Haven City, full of pedestrian traffic, city cops, optional challenges, and linear mission-based gameplay. To call Haven City labyrinthine would be charitable; its layout would make Rube Goldberg cringe. Paths diverge wildly, loop around three or four times to get from one major street to another, and are so crowded it's virtually impossible to drive through without accidentally hitting someone or something. The Krimson Guard function as the GTA equivalent of cops, and the slightest bump into one of them or their vehicles brings their full ire on top of you. Also similar to GTA's cops is the lack of an ability to easily lose them, but Jak II gives you significantly less health and keeps full pressure on you for the entire session, making it easier to simply die than run and hope you'll go unnoticed for the 20 or 30 seconds it takes for the alert to disappear. Vehicles are difficult to control through the tight corridors and endlessly winding terrain; the upper levels are so congested with traffic it's a constant game of stops, starts, and adjustments, and the lower levels are a great way to accidentally hit a wandering guard and bring the hammer down.

This is manageable with a level of skill, but maintaining the level of concentration needed to get all the way across town with less than three seperate vehicles becomes a major nuisance by the four-hour mark of this 20-hour campaign. Once the more difficult racing and escort missions inside the city start piling on (which are designed with one route in mind and virtually no room for mistakes), you'll be ready to chuck your controller at something. There are few missions the player is likely to complete on the first try, so this bleeds over into levels seperate from the hub as well.

How does this damage the narrative? There are countless games where player-punishing, tedious gameplay sections seperate themselves from the cutscenes, which remain as rewarding as they'd be otherwise. But Jak II attempts to create the atmosphere of a city under the grip of an oppressive totalitarian regime with pre-recorded propaganda from the Baron and radio chatter from the Krimson Guards. And it is so badly done. You will hear the phrase "Be advised" while walking by a guard no less than 800 times before finishing the game. It's a meaningless military-sounding catchphrase, and as the frustration of the game's difficulty level begins to pile on, it sounds more and more moronic. What are they being told to be advised of, I wonder? Is it possible to be advised of nothing in particular? Can one be advised in general? It would seem there might be something they have to be advised of. Perhaps they are being advised to continue being advised. That seems advisable.

'Hi, I'm much hotter and more badass than the love interest you get paired with.'The Baron's Big Brother impressions in particular are so bad they border on self-parody, but the game is so insistent on its totalitarian atmosphere that this seems unlikely. A few sample lines you will overhear several times as you struggle to steer your vehicle through a mass of pedestrians and other traffic:

"Give up your freedom and I will protect you!"
"Sacrifice is something you should do for your city."
"Remember, even your friends could be enemies."
"I am disappointed with this city's lack of commitment and sacrifice. Work harder. Eat less. Drink only when I tell you! Sleep is optional. We are at war with an outside threat. Don't make me declare war on you as well."

It's this kind of hamhanded approach to a consistent atmosphere of oppression that damages the game's storytelling on a long scale, and severely mutes its few moments of inspiration. And that's what Jak II is in a nutshell; a game beset on all sides by poor choices on the part of the developers. For every inspired platforming section, there are cheap deaths, sparse checkpoints, and too many enemies. For what could have been strong racing sections, there's too much traffic and obstructions, sluggish handling, and unrealistically short time limits. For every interesting plot development and potentially great character interaction, there's pedantic scriptwriting and obvious line delivery. And the implementation of the hub city and mission-based gameplay is too linear, with too few branch points, with too many minor frustrations piling up on each other, that it's hard not to think of the game as a well-made platformer that loved GTA but didn't quite understand what made it work. It's as if the formula was applied, but the number of avenues of interaction were reduced at every level. You can beat up pedestrians, but all they do is run. You can get cops on you, but there's only one "star level" and evading it is frustrating rather than fun. You can steal vehicles, but there's no ramp jumping, flipping, entertaining impact from hitting pedestrians, and only two or three handling types. You explore a giant city, but nothing about it is particularly engaging, its layout is needlessly complex by at least two layers, and navigating it requires constant viewing of the map and redoubling past dead ends. By adding in combat, racing, escape, and escort missions, you've created an experience too difficult and frustrating for most players to get through with good memories intact.

Jak II has many minigames, all of them frustrating in a unique way.It is, however, certainly possible to feel a sense of accomplishment when the final cinemas end and the credits roll. The plot comes full circle and provides a resolution of sorts, and the platforming sections are well-designed if often beset by the game's aforementioned irritants (the integration of guns into the Jak and Daxter formula is done far better than anyone expected). It's a testament to the fundamental design structure that the constant barriers to player progress don't completely sink the experience -- by all rights this should be nearly devoid of enjoyment. Instead, Jak II is a constant battle between love and hate, a game that is playable thanks to stellar art direction and animation, great control, occasional strength in storytelling, and that most powerful of player resources: defiance to not let this goddamned stupid piece of crap game win.

6/10.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 09/09/07

Game Release: Jak II (US, 10/14/03)


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